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What lies beneath: Flathead Lake Biological Station shares research at annual open house

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"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." ~Albert Einstein


YELLOW BAY — Flathead Lake, one of Northwest Montana’s many geologic gems, has a benevolent force quietly working on its behalf monitoring water quality, collecting data for research and educating the public about its findings.

The University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station, an ecological research and education center, has served as a big brother of sorts to Flathead Lake for more than 100 years.

Founded in 1899, the station is located along the east shore of the lake at Yellow Bay. On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the station hosted their annual open house event. Some 250 attendees toured the facility and a variety of interesting educational stations.

In one room, stoneflies and other small insects could be viewed through microscopes while various living organisms, including fish, could be seen swimming in tanks. 

Several rescued raptors that can never be fully rehabilitated due to the extent of their injuries were brought to the station by the Montana Wild Wings Recovery Center. While maintaining a safe distance from onlookers, handlers answered questions about the birds perched on their arms. In a nearby building, owl carcasses preserved for research and fur hides from many different wild animals were also displayed.

At one station, Bonnie Ellis, a freshwater science research assistant professor, explained how the food web of Flathead Lake changed drastically after the introduction of the opossum shrimp in the 1970s. Initially introduced to bolster the Kokanee salmon population, the shrimp competed with the salmon for the same food source, zooplankton, and were able to stay at the bottom of the lake during the day and come to the surface to feed at night, thus avoiding vision-based predation.

A colorful bar graph showed the nighttime travel patterns of the shrimp from the bottom to the top of the lake. The information in the graph was collected through an acoustic doppler profiler – a device put on bottom of lake that shoots sound beams up through water. When the sound beams hit particles they come back to the sensor. The strength of signal tells you how far away the particle is from the sensor. 

Advances in technology have made the collection and dissemination of data a much faster process.

The Flathead Lake Sensor Network, a process through which FLBS collects environmental data about the lake, makes valuable information such as water temperature, air temperature and wind speeds on the lake available to the public every 15 minutes.

Five shore stations and two large water-based buoys continually transmit data collected above and below the water’s surface via satellite to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The information is compiled and sent back via Internet to FLBS and made available to the public on their website.

“It tells people about the temperature of the water and how rough the wind is so that swimmers and boaters know what they’re up against,” FLBS Director Jack Stanford explained.

It also tells fisherman what the water temperature is in the water columns of the lake and near the bottom – which is useful for knowing where to fish, he added.

In addition to the immediate benefit of near real-time wind and temperature information, the ultimate benefit of the sensor network is a healthier lake. 

“It creates a record so that we can see trends in water quality,” Stanford said. 

According to the station’s website, “Understanding water quality requires scientifically-rigorous, routine measurements done throughout the watershed.”

The sensor network’s continuous automated monitoring complements routine manual samplings taken by boat. 

For the time being the sensor network is only partially operable as the two buoys are currently out of the water for maintenance. The buoys will only be returned to the lake if enough funding is secured to get them back in the water. 

The cost of recalibrating sensors, moving and installing the behemoths via barge and crane and then operating them is around $80,000. 

Funding overall remains one of the station’s biggest hurdles. 

Supported almost entirely through grants and philanthropy around the lake, the station will have to wait and see if enough monies come in to get the buoys back in the lake.

“They have been out of the water for about five months now. One of the buoys broke loose from the bottom and the other was damaged from ice on the north end of the lake,” Stanford said. “They were out there for three years. We got a lot of good information from them. We’d sure like to get them out there again.”

For more information about the Flathead Lake Biological Station, the research they conduct and/or how to contribute to the programs visit:


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